Thursday, August 7, 2008

Watching the Neighbors' House Burn

I didn’t start to worry until the roof caught fire. When the asbestos shingles went, it sounded like a drive-by shooting.

Before that I thought the drunks were out in their yard burning leaves. So what if a burn ban had been in place for two weeks? Most Estonians pay no more attention to burn bans than they do traffic regulations.

But it wasn’t the drunks’ house. It was the mother and daughter’s house next to the drunks. I seriously considered calling the fire department, but I ran to check it out first. Maybe the mother and daughter were tossing aerosol cans on the fire for fun? I’m perhaps sometimes too uptight, and what I consider an out-of-control fire doesn’t at all coincide with the local definition. In the neighborhood I live, people generally shut up and mind their own business.

The brothel behind my house plays loud Russian rock and roll and the girls cackle like chickens throughout the summer, and no one complains. Children on mopeds run pedestrians off the streets, and no one complains. Dogs fill the park with excrement: no one cleans up, and no one complains. So I try to do the neighborly thing: I don’t complain.

By the time I got to the house fire, a good crowd had gathered to watch. And the fire department was on the job. (Another Estonian peculiarity: Estonians like quiet; police and fire vehicles rarely use sirens.) The firemen unrolled their hoses and drenched the woodshed next to the mother and daughter’s house. Of course, I don’t know if they’re mother and daughter; I just suspect. You see, I’ve never met them. In fact, after two years in the same house, I’ve only met one of my neighbors.

To gauge whether my time in Estonia has made me unfriendly, I asked my landlord if he knew any of the neighbors. He said he knows the same one I do. Estonians are true to the etymological meaning of neighbor: someone who lives nearby. But Estonian neighbors don’t necessarily know each other. And, despite the urgings of Matthew 19:19, they don’t necessarily love each other.

By never introducing myself to any of my neighbors, I was just trying to fit in. I was trying to do things the Estonian way.

So why do I feel so rotten about that house?